On the 27th July 2019 I attended a concert of the Somerset Chamber Choir in Wells Cathedral. The picture above is one I took just as the audience were settling and the choir were getting ready to start. The choir is in front of, and framed by, one of the three stunning scissor arches (or strainer arches). One could be forgiven for thinking they were 20th C architecture rather than mid-14th C. Their defined lineation and lack of carved decoration gives them a modern feel. The graceful rising and falling elegance, however, is not primarily ornamental.
So where did this unique set of scissor arches come from? When examining the history of cathedrals three useful questions that can often be applied are: (a) when was the fire, (b) when did the tower collapse, and (c) when was the earthquake? The problem for Wells was the central tower above the crossing. In 1248 the tholus (probably the lantern on the central tower) collapsed due to an earthquake. A new central tower was built circa 1315-22. Some 16 years later, in 1338, the records describe the cathedral as enormiter confracta (seriously broken) and enormiter deformata (seriously marred). This probably refers to the straining effects of the new tower on the crossing piers.
The remedy chosen for the cathedral was the scissor arches, built circa 1338-40. They take the strain of the central tower’s weight and have been doing a splendid job for centuries. The gothic-pointed arches are applied in a unique way by using an upright and an inverted form. There are arch mouldings and circular openings in the spandrels. The design is a type of open screen. However, the strength is in the form. It has been designed to not enclose with a solid form, and therefore not detract from the openness and light of the nave and crossing.
The master mason responsible for the scissor arches was probably William Joy, who was thought to have trained at Bristol Cathedral. At Bristol, the open mouchettes (an asymmetrical shape that is reminiscent of a flame) in arch spandrels reflects the circular openings in the spandrels of the scissor arches at Wells. Joy probably died of the Black Death (circa 1348).
Listening to J S Bach’s St. John Passion I was struck how the cathedral was built as a crucible for music. Joy’s work of around 680 years ago preserved the architecture. That enabled the Somerset Chamber Choir on a summer’s evening in 2019 to engage their audience with an amazing performance of the emotional journey of the Passion. They demonstrated how lucky we are to have such a space for voices and orchestra to elevate the experience of music into something truly unique and remarkable.
Pevsner, N. and Priscilla Metcalf, The Cathedrals of England: Southern England (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 295
Foyle, Andrew and Nicholas Pevsner, The Buildings of England Somerset: North and Bristol, 2nd edn (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011) p. 656